Cablegate: A Mixed Bag for Vietnam's Catholics in the Northwest

DE RUEHHI #0929/01 2210958
R 080958Z AUG 08




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: A Mixed Bag for Vietnam's Catholics in the Northwest

HANOI 00000929 001.2 OF 003

1. (SBU) Summary: Recent visits to Catholic congregations in
Vietnam's Northwest Highlands highlighted inconsistent
implementation of the legal framework on religion at the provincial,
district and commune levels. Poloff, accompanied by Pol Specialist
and Pol Intern, visited the towns of Moc Chau and Son La in Son La
Province, and Dien Bien Phu in Dien Bien Province in late July/early
August. Each visit illustrated the different levels of freedom for
Catholic followers in these communities and reinforced the need for
continued focus on these remote areas to gain needed progress on
religious freedom in the region. End Summary.

Moc Chau's Catholics Acknowledge Improvements

2. (U) The Moc Chau Catholic congregation began meeting in secret in
the 1990's. As the GVN became more permissive toward religious
groups, the congregation went public in 2003 and has experienced a
steady increase in the number of congregants. Today, the basement
level chapel in the home of two congregation members, Mr. Nha and
Ms. Hong, welcomes 200-300 worshipers for regular Sunday services.
On Holy Days of Obligation and holidays, the chapel struggles to
accommodate 400-600 worshipers, many coming from as far as 40 km
away for these special services.

3. (SBU) Mr. Nha acknowledges that conditions for this congregation
have improved in recent years, particularly since the visit of the
Bishop in 2005, but notes that four other sub-congregations in Moc
Chau district have not been so lucky. He explained that commune and
village level officials outside of the district headquarters are
still deeply suspicious of the Catholic sub-congregations and
routinely hamper their ability to meet and worship.

4. (SBU) Mr. Nga stated that while Moc Chau district officials
observed the Moc Chau congregation closely over the past year, they
now seem more relaxed towards the congregants. Still, many Catholic
followers in the Moc Chau district are reticent to worship in
public, fearing discrimination in their ability to access to school
and employment. Children of the congregants participate in
catechism classes during the summer months taught by visiting
teachers, though this activity is not reported to local authorities.
The congregation focuses on charitable work within the Catholic
community and on occasion reaches out to non-Catholics. When the
congregation offers to participate in projects for the community as
a group, district officials refuse their assistance.

5. (SBU) When asked about local officials' level of education on
religion and understanding of the Catholic faith, the congregation
told poloff that both greatly vary among local authorities, leading
to abuse of the more remote congregations. Though the congregation
warmly welcomed visits by the U.S. officials, the congregation
members emphasized that the increased attention alone will not
change the minds of the local officials. More needs to be done to
improve the education and capacity of local officials, noted one
church member, adding that acceptance and community integration
"will take a lot of time."

Son La's Catholics Suffer Local Officials' Ignorance
--------------------------------------------- -------

6. (SBU) The situation for Catholics in the Quyet Thang precinct,
Son La town, Son La province, is decidedly more difficult. Local
officials attempted to prevent poloff from meeting with a group of
seven Catholics gathered at a local residence, insisting that
poloff was violating neighborhood regulations by not notifying local
officials in advance. Poloff noted that both national and
provincial government authorities were informed of the meeting and
continued into the residence. Upon being seated, the group was
quickly joined by several plain-clothed security police and the
Chairman of the precinct People's Committee.

7. (U) The Chairman insisted again that local regulations were being
violated and asked for the purpose of the visit. Upon being told
poloff was interested in the religious life of the Catholic
congregation, the Chairman asserted that there are no Catholics in
Son La, no places of religious worship, adding that "these things
cannot exist unless they are registered." One of the Catholics
present interjected that the Catholic congregation has applied many
times to register without success.

8. (U) Poloff noted that Vietnam's legal framework on religion
permits religious groups to meet and worship prior to registration.
The PC Chairman directed poloff to change topics. After a brief,
perfunctory exchange about socio-economic conditions and social
issues, the PC Chairman stated the meeting was over as time had

9. (U) As the Chairman led the way out of the residence, poloff was
able to step into the next room and visit the chapel. Several
Catholic congregants expressed their thanks for the visit, noting

HANOI 00000929 002.2 OF 003

the importance of outsiders witnessing how difficult conditions are
for the congregation. One member noted that the last time a priest
came to conduct mass services, armed security officials were
present. During the brief discussion, a security official conveyed
a telephonic message from the PC Chairman that poloff should leave
immediately. Poloff and the Catholic congregants continued
conversing while walking out to the street, but were unable to
conduct any further discussions of substance.

Dien Bien's Catholics Poised for Community Integration
--------------------------------------------- ---------

10. (U) The Catholic congregation of Noong Het commune, Dien Bien
Dong district, Dien Bien Province, on the other hand, is able to
meet and worship without interference and has a wholly different
relationship with local neighborhood officials. The congregation
meets regularly on Sundays in the home Mr. Nguyen Ba Huan. The
chapel, a small room adjoining the family business, receives 80-90
people for normal Sunday services and 200-300 for worship on the
Holy Days of Obligation. A priest visits the congregation once a
month for services, as well as for funerals and weddings. Unlike
the Catholic congregation in Moc Chau, the children of the Noong Het
congregation do not attend catechism in the local chapel. Mr. Huan
explained that, "there is no catechism here. It is not appropriate
yet because officials have not recognized us. Children have to go
to our native provinces to get catechism classes to prepare for
their First Communion and go to Hanoi for their First Communion

11. (SBU) Congregation members told poloff that they applied for
registration in March 2007 and then waited to start meeting
regularly until November 2007, noting that they wanted to give
officials ample time to approve their application. To date, they
have yet to receive a response. In Mr. Huan's opinion, "the
provincial officials ignore the congregation's presence on purpose,"
and remain cautious about any acknowledgement of them.

12. (SBU) At the commune level, the authorities are well aware of
the congregation's presence and activities. The commune's deputy
police chief, Mr. Vu Van Yen, joined the meeting and contributed to
the discussion in an open and frank manner. Further, congregants
did not hesitate to share their views and ask questions in his
presence. Mr. Yen noted that he visits the chapel regularly, adding
that he has attended Mass and Christmas celebrations. He views it
his responsibility and pleasure to mingle with different people in
the community. When asked about his views on the Catholic
congregation in Noong Het, Yen remarked, "I think they actually are
positive for the community and I see no problems. I have a lot of
respect for the people here. The men come from Catholic families
which is why they continue their traditions here. However, it is
important that the local officials take time to review their
registration application as this is a sensitive matter."

13. (SBU) Several congregants stated that they understand why
province and district officials look at them with caution; however,
they assert that the time has come to officially recognize them as
part of the community. Mr. Huan told poloff, "We fully understand
why eyes have been on us. We have been behaving ourselves.
Catholicism is new to Vietnam but not new to the world. Look at
what we have done and how we can be in the future so we can be one
with our community. We openly invite officials to have a closer
look at our congregation and its activities so we can become

14. (SBU) Comment: The atmosphere and substance of the three
meetings could not have been more different, highlighting yet again
the uneven and inconsistent implementation of Vietnam's legal
framework on religion. Congregations in Dien Bien and, to a certain
extent, Moc Chau, appear to be making progress in their
relationships with local officials. Poloff met with the Moc Chau
congregation without any officials in the room while the Dien Bien
congregation warmly welcomed the deputy police chief to the open and
lively discussion. While both congregations still await official
registration, they meet, worship, conduct services and maintain
chapels, largely without the presence of or interference from local
authorities. Both were also quick to note that this represented a
significant improvement over several years ago, when they met in
secret and were unable to acknowledge their faith publicly.

15. (SBU) The congregation in Son La town, however, continues to
suffer under heavy-handed local officials who appear intent on
denying the existence of the congregation and preventing them from
discussing their plight with outsiders. The congregants, determined
to continue their religious practice, show little apprehension or
fear when confronted by local officials. The owner of the residence
housing their chapel invited poloff and other embassy officials for
Christmas services, noting that continued visits will eventually
force local authorities to acknowledge the existence of the
congregation. While post continues to push for the full

HANOI 00000929 003.2 OF 003

implementation of the legal framework with the national government,
it is increasingly evident that greater engagement with provincial,
district and other local officials in the Northwest Highlands will
be necessary to advance religious freedom in the region.

© Scoop Media

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